Serviceplan New York talked to Richard Stewart of VOK DAMS about the impact of COVID-19 and the event industry.

Social distancing and restrictions in public gatherings are changing this year’s Marketing landscape. Events like SXSW have been canceled, the Cannes Film Festival has been postponed and even the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo have rescheduled their start date to June 2021. We wanted to know how the event industry is coping and how virtual experiences are being held in today’s uncertain times. After all, we are in this together.

Serviceplan New York talked to Richard Stewart, Managing Director – North America for VOK DAMS, an agency for events and live-marketing about the impact of COVID-19 and the event industry.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell us about what it was like to be on the front lines of the COVID-19 assault on in-person group experiences.

COVID-19 has rocked our entire industry.

Those of us in the creative industries should take particular care of our event services peers. Millions of people who have devoted their careers to experiential marketing — event planners, event hospitality specialists, technical specialists and more — are looking at a very uncertain future right now. That is why at VOK DAMS, we actively support organizations such as Go LIVE Together, a coalition of leading companies from across the events ecosystem with a mandate to drive local, state, and federal legislative actions defining new parameters and accelerating recovery for live events in a post-COVID-19 world. On a personal level, just reaching out and letting someone know you are thinking about him or her can have a profound impact. We often underestimate the value of simple human connection.

To date, how has your business model been forced to change?

Like many agencies, starting in March 2020, we dove into virtual experiences deeper than ever before. Originally, this pivot was out of necessity as clients sought to capture as much value as possible from planned live events that could not be executed. By early April, we had already significantly strengthened our credentials in creating virtual employee events, large conferences, press conferences and showrooms.

We are now in a next phase of our virtual event expansion, one in which streaming live-moments into the digital world is being replaced by digital-first design of interactive event canvases and immersive experiences that result in a higher production value for clients. We’re also focusing on future-forward R&D for digital brand experiences, including the launch of a virtual conference center available globally. New offerings will go to market as developed and form a suite of virtual event offerings for our clients.

Do you have any examples of fun, innovative virtual experiences that you can share

Transforming L’Oréal Day, an employee conference for L’Oréal employees in Germany, was one of our first examples of transitioning a planned live experience to a virtual event. Like many of the virtual events we produced in March, this event was remarkable for the time it took from client decision to actual execution – 2.5 days in this case – and required the type of innovative agile agency approach that we pride ourselves on delivering with passion. In the end, we transported an event for approximately 900 employees into a digital space and provided a platform at scale for an exciting exchange of ideas.

We also took the Volkswagen Geneva Motor Show media press conference online, establishing a playbook for engaging journalists in a contactless world. We integrated three live environments into two 15-minute episodes, creating an experience that was digital, fresh and yet familiar to an audience of International media and brand stakeholders.

But we’ve probably had the most fun producing in the VOK DAMS virtual conference center, where up to 8 speakers can “take the stage” together on a large LED screen, with an in-person moderator and an audience of up to 100 live attendees, who are individually seated on iPads in a physical studio audience seating area. Events here can also be streamed to an unlimited number of viewers on the client’s collaboration platform of choice, and each production is recorded for delivery on downstream marketing channels after the event.

This hybrid event format is shot live in a COVID-19 compliant studio, outfitted with up to date global health safety measures for all staff. This way our clients can be assured that events that take place in our virtual conference center are safe and do not expose our staff to COVID-19. During the event, the moderator is the only person with a physical presence in the studio. All cameras and technical production are run autonomously or by technicians working remotely.

What are the current best practices in virtual experiences?

We’ve gained tremendous insights and learnings from every virtual experience that we’ve delivered thus far. One that consistently stands out is that shifting from a live brand experience to a virtual brand experience is not as simple as mapping your live event to a set of digital tools. Rather, we find that successful digital experiences create haptic moments, or moments that satisfy the consumer’s demand to have and keep something that lasts. Consider using short, hard-hitting content mixed with an intelligent audience engagement strategy and sufficient breaks. How you plan to earn participation, interaction and co-creation with your audience should be central to your planning.

What’s your post-pandemic outlook?

New ideas will enable us to design exceptional customer journeys and consult on the best partners and technologies to unite great teams, inform journalists, build investor confidence and create fiercely loyal customers for brands. When I think about this mandate in the context of the challenges we are currently facing, it’s like, “let’s ride.”

R.Stewart, MD – North America for VOK DAMS
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